As part of the recent Degree Show at the Royal College of Art (RCA) from 24 June – 2 July, you displayed your latest installation About 7000 (2017) which comprised glass vessels filled with menstrual blood alongside a fascinating live performance in which you sewed squares of toilet paper together using hair. How did the idea for About 7000 come about?

 

Rhine Bernardino: About 7000 came from a lot of places and premises in my practice and life. I would say it is the outcome of trying to get my head around notions of abstraction and the arbitrary designation of ‘value’ in our day to day life - concerns ranging from trivial everyday objects such as toilet paper to the human life. Plucked from the abstraction of statistics, what is the significance of the number 7000? What does it look like? How about 7000 coins? 7000 toilet paper squares? 7000 faces? 7000 deaths? This is the controversial figure which is often quoted in relation to the Philippines’ ‘war on drugs’, however, it is also the number of islands that comprise the country where I grew up. It is a curious number, as it also seems to hold a very significant Biblical symbolism. All of these relate to major aspects of my life that are in constant flux and in a state of contradiction, but they are all interconnected, as everything is: from the Self to the Other, and even society at large.

In conversation with Rhine Bernardino

What inspired your interest in recasting materials which are often considered abject (e.g. menstrual blood and toilet paper) into aesthetically beautiful objects?

 

Rhine: A big part of my practice lies in my interest in what may be considered as ‘waste’, coupled with a burning desire to be on the path of a ‘zero-waste artist’. In the context of the human body, it’s primarily focused on bodily fluids such as blood, piss, snot or anything that exists within, comes out or taken from the body. I seek and experiment with ways to incorporate these ‘bodily wastes’ as materials for artmaking.

I work a lot with hair because I’m still dumbfounded by how there is so much emphasis and importance placed on it, especially on women – the tremendous amount of time, energy, pain and money spent on it in our daily lives! As a material, I started exploring its unseemly strength and fragility, intertwining it with another material which I have been using, toilet paper, as I think they share this beguiling duality. Toilet squares are typically banded and held together in a roll; depending on the number of plies and quality of material, it would take some force to break it apart. Likewise, hair is considerably strong. I read that a strand of hair could hold 100g, and that a whole head of hair could support 12 tonnes, which is the weight of about two elephants! On the other hand, they are also both very fragile in their singles, especially in comparison to steel, aluminium and a whole lot of other materials. A single or several strands of hair can be easily snapped with your fingers, even more so with toilet paper as it is already perforated. 

 

In About 7000, I thought about potential ways to harness both materials’ strength by combining them together to form a much sturdier entity. When sewn together with hair, toilet squares become much stronger and harder to break apart, but in the end, if there is an intention to inflict violence upon them, they can definitely be torn into pieces, although not as easily. I am fascinated with this aspect of working together, banding together, and strength in numbers – this has a very strong hold in my practice.

 

I see using toilet paper as part of the process of delving into the realms of waste and disregarded materials: taking them out of their usual settings and resituating them in contexts where they are skilfully crafted, handled with care and laboriously given significant time and utmost attention in order for them to achieve another level of value and transformation. This is a process I employ in my work and is certainly present in my installation and its accompanying performance during my degree show at the RCA. There’s an element of absurdity and futility, but what isn’t?

In your previous collaborations, you sought to bridge your performance-based practice with the work of other artists who handle physically challenging materials (for instance, your collaboration with Sorin Choi in making the installation (2016) which transposed the ‘selfies’ which you took over the course of a year onto small Plexiglas ‘houses’). What comprised the collaborative process behind making the glass vessels for the Regla Series?

 

Rhine: The material alone, challenging or not, is a very big motivation for me to work with anyone. I work with individuals and groups whose practice I am curious or excited about, and where I can see possibilities of working together. Mind you, I see possibilities of working with everyone! We should all be working together, the future is a collaborative process. But it is also a matter of whether they want to explore and experiment with me, which is the tricky part!

 

The collaborative process with Anna Gray for Regla Series came about almost organically. Our practices share inquiries and introspection into biology and the physicality of the body, for starters. After a year of friendship and conversations, I asked Anna if she would be interested in collaborating with me on this project – it’s been challenging for us both in a good way. Making the glass vessel wasn’t necessarily the biggest struggle, it was mainly how to display it, which went through a lot of process and insurmountable stress. It was such a breakthrough, stumbling upon the idea of submerging them in water, it just fitted, made sense and worked out wonderfully. A lot of people wonder how we were able to seal the blood in there, this is somewhat of a secret that we would like to keep a mystery and reveal in person when people are looking at the piece, it’s more ‘magical’ that way. I must say, the process of transferring the blood into the glass and sealing it is quite special as it definitely created a unique bond between us - a stinky one, to be precise.

What is the significance behind the shape of the glass vessel for the Regla Series?

 

Rhine: The visual form touches on a lot of associations - notions of inside and outside, liquidity and transparency, magnification, biological structures, and there are even sci-fi elements in it. It is mesmerising and elegant, it draws you in to look closer, which is the appeal of glass and water, or liquid in general. This is crucial because we wanted to show the beauty of the substance while accentuating its delicate qualities through the material and its presentation. These are all in tune with the core idea behind the work that menstrual blood can be viewed and displayed with such beauty.

 

The design for the exact shape of the vessels was born from Anna’s own practice, which was already developed prior to our collaboration. The fusion of her previous work with my own practice was of paramount importance for the realisation of the as a collaborative endeavour. In this way, our project drew a connection with her solo works which were also displayed during the degree show at the RCA, in which the spherical glass forms are immediately recognisable. 

Physical endurance and recurrence have both featured as performative and aesthetic strategies in your previous performances ( (2012-13), (2014-15)). They resurface in your latest performance (2017) which accompanied the display of the . Why are repetition and physical presence important for this work in particular?

 

Rhine: Time, interval, duration and repetition have always been important aspects and ever-present features in my practice. I have, for instance, a series of individual and collaborative works that I recently started in which I do one specific task repeatedly from 9am-5pm. I call it Working From 9-5, naturally. Some of the actions I have done so far include pumping balloons from 9-5, sewing popped balloons together from 9-5, counting blinks with a collaborator, Edoardo Mozzanega, from 9-5, and spending one day from 9-5 every month (since December 2016) with another artist I met at the RCA, Sing Hang Tam, brainstorming and coming up with projects we can work on together, among others.

 

I see this as a meditative process, a state of mind which looks at everything with full attention, not just parts of it: this is a crucial element in developing a heightened awareness that cultivates the ability to actually see things as they are. It also connects with my meditation practice which is a very big part of my life and which I try to merge with my art practice. I strongly believe that meditation is one of the greatest arts in life, perhaps even the greatest, and it is one that cannot possibly be learned from anybody. That is the beauty of it. It has no specific technique, and therefore no authority. You create your own method, just like how I developed my own method and set of skills in order to thread my hair, sew it on toilet paper, scratch coins effectively, pump, pop, sew and hang balloons efficiently (part of my Balloon Series and Working From 9-5), and fully execute all of my works that require tremendous attention and dedication to a specific process.

 

When you learn about yourself, watch yourself, observe the way you walk, eat, and every movement or action, all of that in yourself, without any choice, that is part of meditation. It can take place anywhere (like in the toilet, sewing toilet papers), anytime, just like art, because it is art. In the understanding of meditation, there is love, and therefore beauty. This kind of love is not the product of systems, habits, or of following a certain established method, it cannot be cultivated by just mere thought and intellectualisation. That is why being present is of utmost importance. This kind of love and beauty is what I want to give full attention to, the kind that I constantly explore and emphasise in varying aspects through my work.

The images published here may not be reproduced without permission of the artist. For inquiries, contact rhine.bernardino@network.rca.ac.uk

 

Interviewer: Eva Bentcheva, Co-director Batubalani Art Projects

London, July 2017

Rhine Bernardino, The Earth Died Screaming while I Am Sewing, live durational performance, hair, toilet paper, June 2017. Image © Rhine Bernardino

Rhine Bernardino and Anna Gray, Regla Series, menstrual blood, glass, water, 2017. Image © Rhine Bernardino

Rhine Bernardino, The Earth Died Screaming while I Am Sewing, live durational performance, hair, toilet paper, June 2017. Image © Rhine Bernardino

Rhine Bernardino, About 7000, installation, Royal College of Art, London, 2017. Image © Rhine Bernardino